Save our gauges


In the spring of 2011, a big, fast-melting snowpack, along with ice-jammed rivers and persistent rain brought intense flooding to Montana. Miles City, in the southeastern part of the state, declared a flood disaster after part of its levee system eroded away, and the town’s stream gauge on the Yellowstone River measured the third highest peak stream flow there since the gauge began recording continuously in August of 1928.

How will this year’s runoff in Miles City compare to that flood and stream flows from the lifetime of years before it? On Wednesday morning it looked like we would never know. That’s when I heard from the Montana U.S. Geologic Survey that they were shutting off the Miles City stream gauge, along with two others in the state. By the afternoon, the agency had updated its web pages for the gauges to include the cause of death, explained in all capital letters: “STATION DISCONTINUED DUE TO SEQUESTRATION.” But at the last minute, the state stepped in to rescue the gauge--for now, although gauges in other states are still on the chopping block.

All across the country stream flow sentinels are falling victim to the indiscriminate spending cuts ushered in on March 1 after Congress failed to agree on a budget. (See Cally Carswell’s High Country News story analyzing sequestration in the West). Other states, like Idaho, have rescued some of their endangered gauges with state funding, but until yesterday, it looked like no one in Montana was stepping up for Miles City’s Yellowstone gauge, the Three Forks gauge on the Jefferson River, and a gauge near Missoula on the Bitterroot River.

According to the U.S. Geologic Survey’s Threatened and Endangered stream gauge website, sequestration could wipe out up to 375 gauges out of about 8,000 total. The agency started tracking and mapping imperiled stream gauges a couple of years ago, because even before sequestration, funding shortfalls were shutting down gauges, which generally cost about $14,000 to $16,000 to run each year.

Gina Loss, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls Montana, say it’s her agency’s job to protect lives and property from weather events, but they rely on readings of river stage and flow from the USGS gauges to help predict flooding. Without a gauge, Miles City would be a blind spot for the weather service.

Flood forecasting is just one of many reasons people care about stream gauges. Recreational boaters, anglers, wildlife managers, highway departments, the U.S. Army Corps and many others rely on stream gauges. They are also used to dole out water rights, because you can’t do that if you don’t know how much water is in the river. And then there are old gauges that have been around long enough to help characterize climate, and shape our perceptions of what’s normal on a river.

The Miles City gauge is one of those granddaddy gauges, and it’s valuable simply because it has been keeping an eye on the Yellowstone for 83 years (the oldest gauge in Montana was installed in 1890 at Fort Benton). The minimum age for a data series to be useful to assess climate change trends is around 30 years, and even a data record that old is hard to come by.

“For a gauge with this many years of effort we almost feel physical pain when we have to turn them off, because of the amount of work that’s gone into them,” says John Kilpatrick, the director of the USGS Water Science Center in Helena, Montana.

Part of that pain comes from what you can’t get back when a gauge dies. Even if it is turned back on in a year or two, and its numbers start helping with flood or drought forecasts again, the gauge’s distinction of having a long and continuous data record is over.  That matters because data gaps lead to statistical guesswork, which make calculating climate trends less reliable, or impossible.

At this point you might be asking why the USGS even considered shutting off an important stream gauge with such a long data record. The simple answer is that the agency was backed into a corner by the idiosyncrasies of stream gauge funding.

Many USGS stream gauges are funded in partnership with other federal, state or local agencies like water conservation districts, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—there are 850 partnerships nationwide. But that patchwork quilt of funding can’t provide security for the gauge network as a whole, since the life of any single gauge could hinge on the vagaries of local funding.

So in 1998 congress created the USGS National Streamflow Information Program (NSIP). That program is where the USGS tucked away their rock star gauges to protect them from the volatility of local funding. NSIP is the backbone of the stream gauge network. Here’s what the USGS website says about the first goal of NSIP, which is having stable stream gauge network: “These will be a permanent set of core stream gauges from which flow information would be delivered in real time, uncompromised by changing support from funding partners.”

Unless, of course, that funding partner is the federal government. With federal cash running short for the USGS right now, agency hydrologists are being forced to cull stream gauges from the NSIP network, because those are the gauges funded solely by the feds. It’s a cruel irony that they have to select from their favorite gauges to make the cuts.

So why did the Miles City gauge end up on the chopping block? According to Mel White, a USGS hydrologic technician and data manager in Billings, there are two other gauges on the Yellowstone above Miles City and two below it, so that station was selected in favor of keeping a gauge running on a river or stream with fewer instruments. For the USGS employees, as well as groups like the local disaster responders who worry about flood prevention, it’s an unpleasant tradeoff. Wayne Berkas, a USGS hydrolgist in Montana, says that with only 39 NSIP gauges in Montana, there’s not a single gauge in the network that isn’t important to someone.

When I called White to check on some facts Thursday morning, he told me that a technician had just turned off the satellite data feed in Miles City (the station was still collecting data, just not sending it), when they learned that the state is stepping in to rescue the gauges at least until September 30. White had to call the technician to drive back to Miles City and turn it back on.

By Thursday afternoon the sequestration memorial in capital letters was gone from the Miles City gauge’s web page. It’s been replaced with the phrase, “This station managed by the Billings field office.”

Sarah Jane Keller is an intern at High Country News.

The view from the Miles City gauging station taken by USGS technician Josh Voorhees on the day the gauge was rescued.

Map of threatened and endangered stream gauges updated Thursday 5 p.m. MST courtesy of USGS.

Image of stream gauge on the East Fork of the Owyhee River in Idaho courtesy of USGS.

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